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Chicago Nixed Its Racist Database of Gangs. Other Cities Should Follow.

Six years of tireless organizing by a coalition of grassroots activists led to this month’s victory in Chicago.

Members of the Black Youth Project 100 stand with other community members announcing a federal class-action lawsuit filed against the city alleging that Chicago police officers are given discretion to add individuals to the gang database on June 19, 2018, at City Hall in Chicago, Illinois.

The Erase the Database Coalition has worked tirelessly for six years to end unjust surveillance and criminalization of Chicago’s most marginalized communities. On September 7, the Chicago Community Commission on Public Safety and Accountability asserted its oversight ability to vote unanimously to end the city’s gang database and start taking steps to live up to the idea of being a true sanctuary city for hundreds of Black and Brown people who continued to be targeted by the Chicago Police Department. Through years of petitioning, FOIA clinics, teach-ins and more, the Erase the Database Coalition continues to inform stakeholders and community members of the impact of surveillance on their lives.

The Erase the Database campaign — envisioned by Black Youth Project 100, Mijente and Organized Communities Against Deportation — came together in 2017 under the premise of creating a true sanctuary city, free of criminalization and policing, for all Chicago residents. The coalition has since grown to encompass a wide array of organizations representing diverse bases across Chicago all challenging ineffective reform and moving toward a world where policing and surveillance become obsolete.

Chicago’s gang database, or “Criminal Enterprise Information System,” was an inherently flawed and harmful system used by the CPD to continuously paint Black and Brown people as the primary purveyors of violence across the city. The database is actually a complex data network of visualization tools and computer applications where information is stored, entered and accessible to members of the CPD and federal law enforcement agencies.

Despite CPD’s work to present Black and Brown folks as dangerous, the city’s Office of Inspector General reports that 13 percent of Black people who experienced use-of-force encounters with a CPD officer were subjected to a less-lethal weapon or a lethal weapon, while 9 percent of white people were subjected to a less-lethal weapon. No white people were subjected to lethal weapons during the period of analysis by the Inspector General. Racist prejudices created large disparities in who was represented in Chicago’s gang database and contributed to Black and Brown folks being overrepresented. Ninety-five percent of the people designated on the gang database were Black and Brown and much of the information in the database was contradictory — for example, one person was simultaneously listed as being a member of two opposing gangs.

However, Chicago isn’t the only city to have a gang database. For years, organizers across New York City have called for the end of their own gang database, called the “Criminal Group Database,” citing similar concerns as Chicagoans, including a lack of transparency, overstatement of gang designation of Black and Brown youth and a lack of formalized policies. The New York City Criminal Group Database started in 2013 with the end of the city’s stop and frisk policy. Earlier in 2023, the Inspector General of the New York City Police Department stated there was no direct link between the Criminal Group Database and adverse outcomes, such as an arrest or harassment by officers. The Office of the Inspector General offered 17 recommendations for the lack of notification to those included on the database of their listing and the disarranged nature of information on the database, such as an insufficient guide for entry criteria into the database. Of the 16,000 entries in the database, 99 percent are Black and Latiné and 10 percent are minors under the age of 18 — with some minors as young as 11. The New York Police Department is not required to alert parents/guardians of the designation, leading youth to continuously be designated as “gang members” in the racist surveillance system.

The Youth Violence Strike Force, Boston’s Police Department gang unit created in 1993, is under investigation by Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Cambell for allegations of racial bias and profiling in its gang-designation procedures. The designation of gang members, according to BPD’s rules and procedures is “three or more people who individually or together engage in criminal activity, frequent a specific location and share a common name or identifier, like a color or symbol.”

BPD launched its gang assessment database in 2004, and it is currently managed by the Boston Regional Intelligence Center (BRIC) created in 2005 to “reduce crime and prevent acts of terrorism.” The American Civil Liberties Union revealed BRIC was using a surveillance system called Geofeedia to monitor social media accounts with terms associated with social activism, pro-Palestine sentiment and “gang affiliated persons.” This type of behavior has long been used to control protesters and organizers’ free speech and liberties to demonstrate against systemic oppression. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu ran on a progressive campaign to remove the gang database but is now in support of continued funding for the database. Sixty-six percent of people on Boston’s gang database are Black and 24 percent are Latiné.

Similarly, California continues to use a state gang database, called CalGang, to track and surveil “persons of interest” or who are deemed as being affiliated with gang activity. Established in 2018, the CalGang unit oversees the CalGang Database. The implementation of the gang database came after the passing of the 2017 Fair and Accurate Gang Databases Act by a vote of 42-32 in the California legislature. Anyone can be entered into California’s gang database — even folks who are not accused of or convicted of a crime. Photos and other personal information are included in the statewide database without their owner’s consent, and there are no clear or consistent processes for removal. Of the estimated 201,094 people on the CalGang database, nearly 20 percent are Black and 66 percent are Latiné with youth as young as 10 years old represented in the database. Community members have the right to not be tracked and criminalized by police.

The end of gang databases in Chicago and beyond must be accompanied by restoration of the people who are undoubtedly harmed by their designation as “gang members.” The Erase the Database campaign is continuing the work of ending the surveillance and policing of Black and Brown people by pushing for the implementation of the Peace Book Ordinance and the Community Restoration Ordinance. Created by the nonprofit youth organization Good Kids Mad City, the Peace Book Ordinance would establish a public safety resource of peacekeepers, violence interrupters and resources. The Peace Book Ordinance was recently reintroduced to Chicago’s City Council on September 14. It aims to establish city and ward commissioners to coordinate peacekeeping efforts in connection with community youth who are trained as violence interrupters, mediators and peacekeepers to actively interrupt situations of violence as an alternative to policing and surveillance.

The Community Restoration Ordinance provides reparations for those harmed by their designation on the gang database by explicitly acknowledging the harm done and providing direct compensation to individuals. Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson promised to pass the Peace Book Ordinance in his first 100 days but has not done so yet; the Erase the Database Coalition awaits his continued commitment in the upcoming budget season.

The Erase the Gang Database campaign won’t stop until policing and surveillance tools are no longer used to restrict the freedoms of Black and Brown folks. This victory is an important first step in continued organizing for the end of racist, suppressive surveillance systems across the country. Surveillance systems like gang databases and SoundThinking (formerly ShotSpotter) continue to advance racial and systemic bias against marginalized Black and Brown communities. As long as white supremacist surveillance technology exists across the country and alternatives to policing do not exist, our work will not stop.